Neandertals Got Game

A cave in southern France has yielded strong evidence that Neandertals hunted and ate the same kinds of animals as anatomically modern humans. The findings seemingly rule out the controversial theory that Neandertals died out because they were poor hunters. Interestingly, the research also suggests that Neandertals and modern humans played a role in the extinction of cave bears.

The cave, called Grotte XVI, is an archaeologist's dream, containing a treasure trove of butchered animal bones and stone tools that represent 50,000 years of human occupation. This spans the time when Neandertals flourished in the area (between 200,000 and 40,000 years ago) and includes the arrival of Cro-Magnons (about 35,000 years ago). For 18 years, archaeologist Jean-Philippe Rigaud of the University of Bordeaux in Talence, France, and colleagues meticulously excavated and documented thousands of animal bones and stone tool sets from the Grotte XVI site. Signature characteristics of the tools allowed the researchers to associate them--and nearby bones--with either Cro-Magnons or Neandertals.

Archaeologists Donald Grayson of the University of Washington, Seattle, and Françoise Delpech of the University of Bordeaux set about cataloging the animal bones by species to compare the diets of Neandertals and Cro-Magnons and to look for evidence that the two groups butchered animals differently. To the team's surprise, there was no difference--either in the type or number of big game, which included reindeer, red deer, roe deer, horses, and chamois. "This should put to rest the idea that Neandertals died out because they were not skilled hunters," says Grayson. The team describes its findings in a paper to be published in the Journal of Archaeological Science.

Although the paper isn't the first to assert that Neandertals were capable hunters, the evidence presented is the most compelling to date, says archaeologist James O'Connell of the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. "There's simply no doubt this site will become the benchmark for comparison," he says. "It will be difficult to recast the archaeological evidence other than how it has been interpreted here."

Interestingly, the researchers also discovered a dramatic decline in the number of cave bears who used Grotte XVI during the same time frame as the Neandertal occupation, suggesting that humans may have ousted the animals for shelter and contributed to the cave bear extinction. "This may be the first evidence of an anthropogenic role in the extinction of a large Pleistocene animal," says O'Connell.

Related sites
Grayson's site
O'Connell's site
General hominid evolution site